The prototypical man for all cars; Auto racing: Mario Andretti has won on the Formula One, Indy car and NASCAR circuits. He's the best of a vanishing breed in this era of specialization.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Mario Andretti has always been willing to spread his wings.

If he saw a race car that interested him, he'd drive it. It didn't matter if it was his favorite open-wheel Indy car, a Formula One car, a sprint car, a stock car, a sports car or a hybrid.

"All my life, I've tried to win outside my box, if you will," Andretti says.

At 60, he has been at it again. Recently he drove in the 24 Hours of LeMans in an attempt to win the only big race that has eluded him.

It was an effort that fascinated many because of his age, because of his desire and because he is one of a declining breed.

The versatile race car driver has gone the way of the running board. When Andretti was a youngster, running boards were everywhere. So, too, were drivers with an itch to drive whatever came to hand.

When Andretti thought of the greats beyond his beloved Alberto Ascari of Formula One fame, whom Andretti says he and his brother, Aldo, idolized, he thought of Graham Hill and Jim Clark, drivers who had been unafraid to try different styles of race cars.

And in Andretti's heyday, he could just look beside him and see A.J. Foyt, who would lay down the challenge for 30 years of competition.

Nowadays, however, someone almost has to explain what a running board is (that step below the bottom of the doors on antique cars and now on some sport utility vehicles). And so it is with versatile drivers.

"Our sport has become so refined, it has grown so much, everyone is so busy just trying to stay on top of his own racing division, there isn't time to do what Mario did," says former Indy Car champion Rick Mears, who is a consultant for the Roger Penske CART teams.

Today's one-discipline drivers may gulp at what it would take to compile Andretti's resume, which shows him to be the most successfully diverse driver in this country's racing history and, perhaps, the most diverse in the world.

"Mario may be unique in his achievements," says the great sports car driver, Brian Redman. "Others may have had the ability to do what Mario did, but he was the one who most successfully picked his opportunities. He picked the right cars and the right place over a long period of time. There's probably not anyone else in the same spectrum as that."

Andretti was greatly disappointed when the Don Panoz-owned team he was driving for failed to win last month at LeMans. But his portfolio is already brimming.

He has won the Formula One world driving title, CART and Indy Car titles. He has won the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 and has three victories at the 12 Hours of Sebring.

"He certainly has all the trophies to prove he's the most versatile," says seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, who has been content behind the wheel of a Winston Cup stock car.

Foyt has four Indianapolis 500 victories, the Daytona 500 and LeMans. Hill has won the F-I title, the Indy 500 and LeMans.

No one else has come close.

And, says three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon, it's unlikely anyone ever will.

"When I was a little kid, I was fascinated by Mario," says Gordon, 28. "He and A.J. were the greatest. They'd race Indy and then get in the dirt champ cars. ...They'd drive anything to make a living, and they did it because they loved it.

"When I started my career, I thought I could drive a lot of different cars. I adapted from midgets to sprints to stock cars. But then I fell in love with stock cars. And after a couple years I remember thinking, 'I've either got to stick with this or move on to something else' because I knew if I stayed in stock cars for four or five years I wouldn't be able to go do something else successfully."

Gordon says once a driver gets immersed in a series, he stops growing. He gets so used to doing what he has to do to make what he is driving work, changing to some other car becomes ever harder.

"Guys like Mario and A.J. were able to jump from car to car because they jumped," Gordon says. "They were able to adapt for that very reason. You can't do that today."

Mears says it is a risk in today's market to jump to another series for a one-race deal the way Andretti and Foyt, and even retired Winston Cup driver Bobby Allison, used to do. "These days there are at least five teams in every series that are top teams," Mears says. "You can't drop into their backyard for a single race and expect to run up front with them the way those guys used to. And if you try and you fail, it could hurt you even where you're already established."

Even to make a jump full time could mean losing out big time. Gordon recalls a few years ago when rumors flew that he was going to leave Winston Cup racing for Formula One. "Offers did come in that could have made it happen," Gordon says. "But you don't just go from Winston Cup to F-1. It would have meant two years in CART and then testing in F-1 and then, probably a Formula One ride.

"It would have meant giving up everything I'd worked for to spend another four or five years to make it there. It was a risk I wasn't willing to take. I'd found my niche, my team and sponsor."

Today, the Winston Cup schedule is longer than it has ever been in the modern era, as the tour circles the nation with 34 events and next year will add two more. The CART series no longer just travels this country, but reaches into Australia, Japan and South America. Next season, it could be going to England and Germany. The budding Indy Racing League will have 12 events next season.

Each of those series requires a driver to be at each race track at least three days. Add to that pre-race promotions with driver appearances, sponsor requirements, some charity work, owner demands that drivers not risk their health in other forms of racing and demands at home.

Gordon says it is his ability to build a little time into his schedule for a vacation or a dinner and a movie with his wife, Brooke, that "allows me to enjoy the racing, win or lose, good or bad."

There are, of course, a few who do try to race in more than one series, including Winston Cup drivers Tony Stewart, who won the IRL championship before coming to Winston Cup, and John Andretti (Mario's nephew) and Robby Gordon, who have both raced at the Indy 500 and the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte, N.C., on the same day.

"Tony Stewart tries," says Winston Cup driver Mark Martin. "But I think if a driver is as good as A.J. or Mario or Al Unser Jr., if a driver has a special talent like those guys had, barriers are put up. Someone or something is always trying to stop them. ... Everyone has his own interests."

Even time zones are barriers, but they have not deterred Andretti. Twenty years ago, when trans-Atlantic travel was even more wearing than it is today, he was competing in Indy Cars and Formula I at the same time. His passion was, and is, insatiable.

"Being at LeMans, it [was] so important for my attitude, for my physical and mental well-being, to be able to say I'll take a calculated risk at this point in my life," says Andretti. "It was good for me. Good for my soul.

"I know people said I was crazy. ... Even my wife said, 'Why do you want to come here? This race nearly kills you!' But there is something about it. And it's me. It was my desire."

Corvette driver Ron Fellows, who drives sports cars, Busch Grand National stock cars and Craftsman trucks, among others, describes Andretti as "the best all-around racing driver there has ever been" and then goes on to talk about Andretti's desire.

"You just look in that guy's eyes, even at 60," he says, "and you see nothing but fire and passion as few people have."

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